Tunnel in wash

Authorities discovered an illicit tunnel connecting to the cross-border sewer line at this point behind Bankard Avenue, about a mile-and-a-half north of the border, when a backhoe broke through the concrete flooring in the Nogales Wash. The small opening seen here at the center of the excavated area is the hole the smugglers cut in the pipeline. A city sewer line, seen here covered in a green plastic sleeve, was also damaged.

Crews were expected to begin repairs Friday on a breach to the cross-border sewage line running under the Nogales Wash that was apparently caused by smugglers who dug an illicit tunnel to the pipeline.

The tunnel was discovered last week when workers were cleaning up the Nogales Wash behind Bankard Street, approximately a mile-and-half north of the border, County Supervisor Rudy Molera said.

“They were in the Nogales channel cleaning up and had a backhoe just drop into a cavity, and it ended up that there was a drug tunnel coming under there,” Molera said during the board of supervisors’ meeting on Wednesday morning.

Smugglers regularly attempt to tap into the International Outfall Interceptor, which carries millions of gallons of sewage a day north from Nogales, Sonora to a treatment plant in Rio Rico, in an effort to use it as a conduit for cross-border drug loads.

In perhaps the most infamous example, smugglers who dug a tunnel to the sewer line from a home on Morley Avenue plugged up the IOI with drug bundles in July 2015. As a result, raw sewage poured out of the opening the smugglers had cut in the pipeline, up the tunnel, into the home and out into the surrounding neighborhood.

In December 2013, authorities discovered another tunnel leading to the sewer line from a property on Bankard Avenue. In that case, the passageway began in a backyard shed and ran approximately 52 feet to the IOI.

The Nogales Police Department referred questions about the latest Bankard-area drug tunnel to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but an ICE spokeswoman was unable to answer questions in time for the NI’s print deadline.

However, Mayor Arturo Garino told the NI on Thursday afternoon that the tunnel led to a nearby house.

“It was from one residence on Bankard Street to the IOI,” Garino said. “Their plans were to come through the sewer line that comes from Mexico, use it as a delivery system and catch the bundles there when they came across.”

City and county officials inspected the area on Wednesday morning and found that both the IOI and the city’s sewer line had been ruptured as a result of the tunnel, Supervisor Manuel Ruiz said. He added that the city’s line was fixed on Wednesday, and the IOI repairs were scheduled to begin on Friday.

“I know that the city, the (International Boundary and Water Commission) and the county have been working on it to get it fixed before the rain comes,” he said, referring to the monsoon season that typically brings heavy rainfall beginning in late June or early July.

Ruiz added that the county planned to send letters to the IBWC and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to notify them of the breach and ask for financial support in fixing it.

“At this point there’s other issues right there where the hole is, so I don’t know what type of repair we’re looking at,” he said, adding: “They’re going to proceed (to fix it) and later decide who’s going to pay for it.”

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